Canadian History Sure Isn't Dull With These 7 Women In The Mix

Pay attention, class.
Author and journalist Doris Anderson.
Author and journalist Doris Anderson.

We put our love of history to use and found you seven Canadian women whose stories you need to know. From the beloved author of "Anne of Green Gables" to the "first police officer" in Canada, these women made their mark in our nation's past and present. Happy International Women's Day!

Rose Fortune (1774-1864)

Businesswoman, unofficial police officer

Rose Fortune was born to black enslaved parents in Virginia before they emigrated to Canada when she was ten years old, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. The Fortune family arrived in Nova Scotia but struggled as black Loyalists to gain employment. Rose was unfazed by this, and launched businesses - first as a baggage carrier, where she delivered baggage by wheelbarrow to ships at the Annapolis Royal waterfront, the site said.

From there she installed a "wake-up call service" that acted as an alarm clock for people in nearby inns who might miss their ships. Fortune created and "enforced" curfews and was, as Parks Canada wrote on their website, "'the unofficial town 'police officer' well before the existence of a professional police force." Those who interacted with her or saw her work wrote about Fortune in action, which involved not only carrying baggage but directing both clients to their boats and boys who got underfoot out of her way. "Residents of Annapolis Royal remembered her with great affection as an iconic representative of their town and a determined keeper of order on the streets," Parks Canada says.

Fortune died in 1864 and was buried in an unmarked grave in a Nova Scotia graveyard. But her legacy didn't end there. One of her descendants, Dr. Daurene Lewis, became the first black female mayor in Canada when she was was elected Mayor of Annapolis Royal in 1984, according to ExplorerGuide. Fortune's story is told nightly on a candlelight graveyard tour, and in 2017, she was honoured a monument at the cemetary where she is buried.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)

Teacher, activist and publisher

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in Wilmington, Delaware, to parents whose house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her parents sent their children to the northern states so they could access proper education. After she finished her own education, Shadd taught other African Americans back in Delaware.

Illustration shows the network of 'Underground Railroad' routes in Morgan County, Ohio, used by slaves to escape into free states or Canada, 1848. Illustration was published in 1898.
Illustration shows the network of 'Underground Railroad' routes in Morgan County, Ohio, used by slaves to escape into free states or Canada, 1848. Illustration was published in 1898.

Shadd settled in Windsor, Ont. in 1851, where she wrote "educational booklets," Black History Canada wrote on their website. The booklets gave advice to newcomers like herself on what to expect from life in Canada. She later opened a desegregated school for those who could afford to attend it. From there, she relocated to St. Catharines, Ont. She launched the Provincial Freeman newspaper in 1853 to promote stories of black freedom and success in Canada. She thus became the first black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, BHC said. She would marry Thomas Cary in 1856.

Cary returned to the U.S. during the Civil War. In 1863, she acted as a recruiting officer for the Union Army in Indiana. "[She] encouraged African Americans to join the fight against the Confederacy and against slavery," reported. When the war ended, Cary became the second African-American woman in the U.S. to obtain a law degree from Howard University in 1883.

Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack) (1862-1920)

Possibly discovered gold

Tláa was the first woman of the Klondike, a region in the Yukon territory. She was a First Nations Tagish woman. The Tagish were described as a nation of people who were "boreal forest hunters and fishers." Her first husband and infant daughter passed away during an influenza epidemic, which led Tláa's mother to encourage a marriage between Tláa and her late sister's white husband, George Carmack, the National Park Service reported on their website. On August 17, 1896, while fishing with her husband and brother, dubbed Skookum Jim Mason, by Rabbit Creek in Klondike River, gold was discovered. There is some debate over whether Carmack found the gold or Tláa.

A group of unidentified people sluice for gold during the Klondike gold rush.
A group of unidentified people sluice for gold during the Klondike gold rush.

The couple would go on to discover a wealth of gold and reap the rewards. But for Tláa, the riches wouldn't last. After the couple cashed in their find, they settled in Seattle, but it was a difficult transition for Kate, according to the Smithsonian Postal Museum. Eventually, Carmack sent her to live with his sister in California while he returned to the Yukon and took up with another woman. As Tláa and Carmack were not legally married, she lost a claim to her share of the gold, and eventually ended up living in a cabin her brother built, relying on government pension before she died of the flu.

Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942)


Lucy Maud Montgomery is shown in this photo from 1891.
Lucy Maud Montgomery is shown in this photo from 1891.

"I cannot remember a time when I was not writing, or when I did not mean to be an author," Lucy Maud Montgomery once wrote in a journal. "To write has always been my central purpose around which every effort and hope and ambition of my life has grouped itself."

In her time, Montgomery wrote more than 500 short stories and 20 novels. Her most famous book, "Anne of Green Gables," has sold approximately 50 million copies worldwide, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Montgomery was born in New London, P.E.I. Her first published piece was a poem called "On Cape Le Force," at age 16. Her first novel was "Anne of Green Gables," published in 1908. The book has been translated into at least 36 languages, and a first-edition copy sold for $37,500 USD in 2010, The Guardian reported. It has been adapted numerous times, including the 1985 television series starring Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, the 2016 film starring Ella Ballentine, and most recently, the CBC/Netflix series, "Anne."

The Anne Of Green Gables: The Musical, first opened in 1965 at the Charlottetown Festival, is still ongoing. Producers of the musical report it to be the "longest running annual musical in the world," with approximately 2.3 million people attending a performance in Charlottetown, Mental Floss wrote on their website.

Angelina Napolitano (1883-1924)

Murder case draws attention to effects of domestic abuse

On April 16, 1911, Easter Sunday, Angelina Napolitano, 28, and seven months pregnant at the time, killed her abusive husband with an axe as he slept in their Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. home. The axe hit Pietro four times in the neck and head, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. After the murder, Napolitano put the axe back in their woodshed and then went to "cuddle" her youngest child. Some time would pass before she would call her neighbour to say, "I just a killed a pig," in Italian, the Ottawa Citizen reported. Her case was an eye-opener for domestic abuse.

Napolitano was born in Naples, Italy, and moved to Ontario with Pietro in 1909. Pietro, described as an "underemployed labourer," had reportedly forced her into sex work, and had routinely physically abused her. "At the trial it was revealed that Angelina's face, neck, and shoulder had been disfigured in November 1910, when he knifed her nine times," Dictionary of Canadian Biography says. Pietro was charged with assault, but the abuse persisted. "He had again told [Napolitano] to prostitute herself or, as she put it, 'be a bad woman.' If she did not have money for him when he woke up, he threatened to beat or kill her."

Napolitano was sentenced to be hanged on August 9, but protests and international outcry - with more than 100,000 signing petitions for clemency - led the Liberal government on on July 14, 1911 to commute her sentence to life imprisonment. On December 30, 1922, the Kingston Penitentiary granted her parole. Napolitano reportedly tried to make contact with her children, but it's not known if she succeeded in reuniting with any of them.

(Original Caption) Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Aerial view shows the area that is under siege by some 400 inmates at the Kingston Penitentiary. The four-way cell block in the middle is the area where prisoners are holding six guards hostage till the prison meets their demands. UPI Telephoto.
(Original Caption) Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Aerial view shows the area that is under siege by some 400 inmates at the Kingston Penitentiary. The four-way cell block in the middle is the area where prisoners are holding six guards hostage till the prison meets their demands. UPI Telephoto.

Doris Anderson (1921-2007)

Journalist, author, feminist

Doris Anderson.
Doris Anderson.

Anderson was an editor for Chatelaine one of Canada's best-known lifestyle magazines, and was known for her less than conventional approach. "At a time when the 'women's sections' of Canadian newspapers were filled with society weddings, recipes and advice on etiquette, Doris was using Chatelaine to challenge the abortion laws, spotlight the male dominance of Parliament, militate against racism and decry women's poverty," Michelle Landsberg wrote in Chatelaine in 2007.

Anderson graduated teachers college at the University of Alberta in 1945. From there, she went to Europe in 1949 to pursue fiction writing and moved back to Canada in 1950 to work at Chatelaine. She was editor from 1957 to 1977, according to the Toronto Star.

Anderson was described as the Canadian face of feminism. In the 1960s, she pushed for a Royal Commission on the Status of Women. This led to the boost of the Canadian feminist revolution, the Star said. She continued to be politically active, fighting for women's equality issues throughout her lifetime.

Anderson wrote in 1987 for the Toronto Star, "I'm always being asked by someone – usually a man – if the women's movement is dead, or dormant, or discredited, or co-opted, or relegated to history as a passing fad." She continued, "Far from being a passing fad, the women's movement is alive and flourishing. It's a continuing 300-year-old revolution."

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie (1867-1945)

Educator, feminist

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie was born in Montreal, and quickly grew into an advocate for women's rights. She often witnessed the mistreatment of women in her circle, and women who were servants. Gérin-Lajoie would struggle and fight for married women to control their income, had more say in family assets, and were guardians of children, according to the Library and Archives Canada.

Women were either made to be confined within domesticated spaces or poorly paid. Though Quebec's Roman Catholic francophone university faculties were closed to women then, Gérin-Lajoie set out to learn more about how and why women were treated as they were in society. She was also curious to know the relation between law and women.

Then came the 1891 "Rerum Novarum," which linked Catholicism with social activism. At the same time came an increase of Christian feminism in France, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography reported. "[This allowed Gérin-Lajoie] to combine her desire for reform with her personal faith."

Gérin-Lajoie sought a women's group that was francophone and Catholic and so created the Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste in 1907. Their motto was "Vers La Justice Par La Charité," which translates to "Towards Justice Through Charity." In 1908, she founded a school for girls to help them pursue higher education.

She spearheaded the Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste for 20 years. "[Gérin-Lajoie] used its monthly publication, La Bonne Parole, to educate women about their rights and duties, and to advocate for law reforms to benefit women, including admitting women to the practice of law, improving employment conditions for domestic workers, and granting married women more power in family decision-making and greater protection when their husbands died without leaving a will," the Canadian Encyclopedia said. Gérin-Lajoie and the group were also among those who sought for the right of women to vote in provincial elections.

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